07/07/2010 11:12 AM

Afghanistan and the West

The Difficult Relationship between Democracy and War

An essay by

Many Germans would like to see Chancellor Angela Merkel withdraw the country's troops from Afghanistan. But should she listen? There are many good reasons for the West to be involved in the war against the Taliban, but public opinion may not be listening.

The first democrats were warriors. In the fifth century BC, the citizens of Athens constantly had to defend their freedom, first against the Persians and later against the Spartans. They performed their military service either as hoplites -- citizen soldiers -- in phalanx formation or as rowers on trireme war ships. At the time, no one realized that war would prove to be a greater challenge for democracies than for other forms of government. The citizens of Athens and other city-states killed and died for their values. In his book "The Classical World," historian Robin Lane Fox writes that this was precisely the Greeks' advantage. They fought furiously so that they could remain free. The Persians, on the other hand, were ruled by a brutal king, which reduced their motivation.

Nowadays, democracy is the form of government that struggles the most with war. This is even true of the United States, where governments are often quick to deploy troops, whereas the public quickly becomes skeptical. This is not a flaw; war always involves the killing and mutilation of human beings and scruples are absolutely necessary. Of all democracies, it is perhaps Germany that struggles the most with war -- and that too is understandable. Germany started two world wars, the second of which was total war, an orgy of destruction and self-destruction. The phrase "No more wars," one of the guiding principles of modern-day Germany, is an obvious consequence of the country's history.

But this phrase has been overtaken by reality, now that Germany has been embroiled in a war for the last eight years. Hardly anyone noticed at first, but since the bad news from Afghanistan has begun piling up, the war has triggered a new debate. Two thirds of Germans want to see the German military, the Bundeswehr, pull out of Afghanistan.

But there are good arguments for the troops to stay. These arguments are the subject of this essay, as is the question of what it means for a democracy to wage a war, and why waging this war in particular can be the right thing for the German democracy. The arguments coincide with the chronology of a war. First, we discuss the act of and reasons for going to war, then the actual conduct of a war, which involves killing and dying and, third, the question of when one should end a war. Finally, we discuss who should decide when to begin and end a war, and what the basis for those decisions should be.

The Beginning:Terror and Solidarity

There are good reasons for war and bad reasons for a war. Hardly anyone will deny that it was it a good thing that the Americans, British, Canadians, Australians and others went to war with Nazi Germany. If they had taken a pacifist approach, democracy would have perished in Europe, and our lives would be different today.

But democracies have also started wars for the wrong reasons. The Athenians sometimes used their weapons to exact tribute from other states. France and Great Britain were driven by economic greed when they waged their colonial wars. The United States attacked Iraq in part because of its enormous oil reserves. In Vietnam, a war between two political systems also revolved around issues of power.

In its short history, the Federal Republic of Germany has not gone to war for any of the wrong reasons. The Bundeswehr sent troops to Belet Huen in Somalia in 1993 because a civil war had plunged the country into chaos and mass starvation loomed. The mission was conducted solely for humanitarian reasons. The goal of the 1999 war against Serbia was to prevent genocide in Kosovo.

On Sept. 11, 2001, the United States was attacked with hijacked aircraft, and almost 3,000 people lost their lives. It was an act of terror by hostile Islamists who feel challenged by the Western way of life and the freedoms that people have in a democracy and a market economy. In his messages to the world, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, left no doubt that he intended to continue waging this war. Afghanistan was a safe haven for his terrorist organization, tolerated and supported by the country's Taliban regime. That was why the Americans intervened in Afghanistan.

Justified, at the Beginning at Least

Economic reasons played no role at the time. The war was not launched because of the country's reported large lithium reserves. Instead, it was a war against terror.

Then German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder promised the United States "unlimited solidarity" in the fight against Islamist terrorism, which also fights against values held by Germany and Germans. It was the right approach. The United States, one of Germany's allies, had been attacked. When the United States conducts a war for good reasons, Germany should come to its aid, partly because it was only able to survive as a nation during the Cold War with the help of the Americans.

There was no "August experience" or enthusiasm for this war, as there was in 1914. The politicians sent their soldiers to Afghanistan with a heavy heart. After an initial period in Kabul, the Bundeswehr eventually chose the country's relatively safe north as its field of operations. It didn't want to promote a new heroism or test its weapons in major battles. It was to make a contribution, quietly and with as little combat as possible.

This war was well justified, at least at the beginning.

The Course of Battle: The Beast and its Victims

If there is any war that is widely recognized as a good war, it was the Allied war against Nazi Germany. And if there was a soldier who was widely recognized as a good soldier, it was the American GI, who stormed the coasts of Normandy from landing craft in the face of ridiculously high risks. The survivors still remember handing out chocolate to German children.

In his most recent book, British historian Antony Beevor has revealed that some of these heroes of democracy were war criminals. These GIs, who butchered German soldiers after they had surrendered, were probably good people when they boarded the landing craft. But then war awakened the beast within them.

The taming of this beast is a project of democracy, begun by the Greeks, whose democracy was a response to the capriciousness of cruel tyrants. They sought and found a means to resolve political issues and power struggles without violence. In war, however, they continued to welcome the beast that still lurked within their souls. There was no such thing as humanitarian compassion for an external enemy, and they did everything that was necessary to achieve victory. The democracies of today take a different approach. Their image of humanity has been refined to such a degree that the external adversary, the enemy, is not to be fought with the greatest degree of violence possible. The public on the home front demands a decent and clean war, a war in which the enemy is treated considerately.

Democracies attempt to manage without hatred. Contrary to what one might assume, conflict, not peacefulness, is the essence of democracy. Everything is always contested, and there is no permanence or uniformity, as there is in a dictatorship. New conflicts are constantly arising and no one can be assured of keeping his or her position. To ensure that this functions properly, conflict must remain civil. Violence is a taboo. This is not paradoxical, but logical. Precisely those who have turned permanent conflict into a form of government are the most insistent that the struggle remains fair and nonviolent.

Permanent Violation of a Taboo

During the course of Christianity, the Enlightenment and a humanitarian universalism, this concept has intensified to such an extent that rules must always be preserved, even in war. Even a Taliban fighter is not an enemy but a human being. This is the way we see it in democratic societies, and rightfully so.

A war, therefore, is the permanent violation of a taboo, which is why democracies try to wage war as humanely as possible. And because the German public is particularly sensitive, as a result of the two world wars, the Bundeswehr has even tried to create a new type of soldier: the good, good-natured warrior, a man with a rose in his gun barrel, friendly, helpful and devoid of the inner beast. In the first few years in Afghanistan, the Bundeswehr devoted itself primarily to reconstruction. Some of its rules were so grotesquely considerate that soldiers felt defenseless.

The Americans too, though they are often chided, try to take the civilian population into account in Afghanistan. The US magazine The Atlantic recently reported that American soldiers have stopping walking on the fields of a certain farmer during their operations to avoid angering him. It is as if soldiers waging a war in Germany were to obey signs that read "Do not walk on the grass" so as to remain on the good side of building custodians. This is the way a democracy wages war.

Nevertheless, the home front is always dissatisfied, always alarmed. This makes sense, because every war remains a violation of taboos, no matter how humanely it is conducted. Still, two points of criticism are unfair.

The first is the criticism of the lengthy duration of a war. In his book "The Changing Face of War," Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld described two forms of counterinsurgency that were successful. In 1982, the then Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad brutally crushed the Muslim Brotherhood resistance movement. Up to 25,000 people were reportedly killed in the process, including many women and children. The campaign enabled Assad to keep his family in power to this day.

Pointless Struggle

The second example is that of the British struggle in Northern Ireland. After initially taking a brutal approach, they spent the next few decades gaining the confidence of the population by imposing strict military restraint, until the IRA eventually recognized that its struggle was pointless.

The second version is the only option for a democracy. Brutality contradicts the image of humanity on which democracy is based. But a society needs patience for the second approach to succeed. It takes a long time and is expensive, and there are setbacks. Success is not a certainty, but a possibility.

The other unfair criticism is that the war in Afghanistan is a dirty war.

Soldiers waging a war are often unable to satisfy the august demands of a democracy. They cannot remain as detached as the speakers in a parliamentary debate. Their companions in combat are fear, bloodlust, hate, megalomania and, eventually, coldness and a dulling of the senses. All of this only brings out the inner beast even further. The result is actions which are seen as intolerable.

When German Colonel Georg Klein felt that the Bundeswehr camp in Kunduz was threatened early last September, he ordered air strikes on two tanker trucks that had been hijacked by insurgents. He lied to the American pilots to eliminate their concerns about the air strike. Up to 142 people, including many civilians, died in the attack. Colonel Klein is a person who would probably never have harmed anyone in Germany. But he was in a war, a war that had brought him to the point at which he could issue that fatal command.

This doesn't make the entire war dirty. As bitter as it is, mistakes and excesses with horrific consequences will always occur in the chaos of war. Each individual soldier cannot be relied upon to wage the kind of war that is appropriate for a democracy. We can be sure, however, that the nation, in this case, the Federal Republic of Germany, does not intend to wage a brutal or dirty war. All of the politicians who are principally responsible for this mission, including former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and current Chancellor Angela Merkel, are civil people who are opposed to war and approach the matter with great scruples. They wanted and still want to wage this war in a way that does justice to the German democracy.

Inevitability of Deaths

They are also not the types of politicians who would recklessly send people to their deaths. On June 16, 1813, Napoleon said to Clemens Wenzel von Metternich: "I grew up on the battlefield. A man like me does not give a shit about the lives of a million men." A greater contrast to Angela Merkel is difficult to imagine, and yet she too is willing to accept the inevitability of the deaths of German soldiers.

It is probable that virtually everyone feels that that there is a higher purpose than his or her own life. Many parents would sacrifice their lives to save their own child. Bodyguards are expected to protect politicians with their bodies. Police officers and firefighters repeatedly expose themselves to life-threatening situations to rescue people who are in danger.

None of this is debatable. But should one comment that it is justifiable for German soldiers to risk their lives for their country, Germany, unease is likely to be the response. It is no coincidence that the debate over the war in Afghanistan began heating up after seven German soldiers were killed there within a short period of time. There is a prevailing sense that their sacrifices were in vain, and that their deaths were pointless. This too has something to do with Germany's past. The Nazis sent millions of Germans to a death that was then celebrated as martyrdom. Since then, Germans no longer have a need for heroism -- nor should they.

The sad truth is that Germans today have almost no passion in their relationship with democracy and freedom. It was an advantage for the Greeks that they were democrats when they went into battle against the Persians. In contrast, the German peace movement coined the phrase: better red than dead. With these words, pacifism has betrayed democracy.

Pacifism is the attitude of a minority, and yet the majority of Germans still have no passionate relationship with democracy and the nation, unlike many Americans or Frenchmen, whose ancestors fought for freedom. But pathos is necessary to make death halfway bearable, as many funerals demonstrate. And when a young person dies, in particular, we need a higher purpose to give us comfort.

Expecting Sacrifices

Therefore, it stands to reason that post-pathos, post-heroic Germany is especially troubled by the deaths of its soldiers -- particularly given the decades-long view of soldiers as people who can obtain a truck driver's license without having to pay the usual fee and who feel at ease when camping in the countryside. Now a soldier is a person who could soon die in Afghanistan.

The death of a young person is always a catastrophe. The question is whether Germany can consider it reasonable to expect some of its citizens to face such a catastrophe. The answer is yes. Again, it should be pointed out that Germany is an established state. Despite its many defects, it gives its citizens the opportunity to lead a relatively good life, it provides and guarantees considerable freedoms, and it is a functioning democracy. Germany gives it citizens so much that it can also expect sacrifices from some of its citizens.

To date, 43 German soldiers have died in Afghanistan. This is a horribly high number, but also an unexpectedly low number. What nation has been embroiled in a war for eight years without having to mourn thousands or hundreds of thousands of deaths? It always seems cynical to treat the dead as a statistic, and yet one can honestly say that this war has not claimed a terrible high death toll.

On the whole, the course of this war does not suggest that a withdrawal of the Bundeswehr would be necessary.

The End: Aftermath and Innocence

How does a war come to an end? This too is a question that is addressed differently by a democracy today than by any other form of government. In the past, those who attacked a country for reasons of economic greed could withdraw as soon as they had taken their fill or after the military costs of exploitation exceeded the spoils. The victors enjoyed their newfound wealth and were indifferent to the suffering they left behind.

Fortunately, this is not possible in a modern democracy. Feeling "indifferent" is not an option, not even when it comes to the period following a war. In other words, those who conduct a war also assume the responsibility for what happens after the war, that is, for the postwar order. Unfortunately, democracies almost never succeed in establishing a satisfactory order within a short period of time.

World War I was followed by the regime of Versailles, which ended in World War II. World War II was followed by the division of Europe, which only brought freedom and prosperity to the West. In the East, Stalinism took the place of Nazi rule, and the gulags followed for many who wanted freedom and democracy. Somalia is no longer a country today, but a place of violence and suffering. It is only through the constant presence of foreign powers that a precarious peace prevails in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.

This is a sad state of affairs. Nevertheless, it was only a mistake to have waged war in one of these cases: Somalia. The West abandoned the people of Somalia to a bleak fate when it became clear that it would be extremely difficult and costly to create a new order. Now pirates are terrorizing trade routes off the Somali coast.

The Barbarism Is Over

In Bosnia and Kosovo, the military intervention of Americans and Europeans has brought peace and order. The barbarism is over, and there are no longer any massacres or mass rapes. Both countries are part of Europe, and Europe cannot allow civilization and civility to deteriorate along its periphery. This is where moral and geopolitical arguments come together. And if there is no other option, the Bundeswehr will remain in the region for another 100 years.

Afghanistan, on the other hand, is far away. In addition, the original argument to justify this mission has begun to crumble. No one knows whether Osama bin Laden can still be apprehended. Militant Islamism is sufficiently mobile to create bases elsewhere, in places like Pakistan and Yemen. Nevertheless, if NATO were to withdraw now, the Taliban would soon be in power again. The new order would be the old order, and the only difference would be that the Taliban would be back in power because the West had failed.

The Bundeswehr has assumed responsibility for the people in the north, which has been a relatively comfortable undertaking to date. In Kunduz, Mazar-i-Sharif and elsewhere, people are able to live normal lives without violence. They go to work and girls can go to school. The news of dead soldiers covers up the fact that this ordinary life exists. This normal life, too, is a success for the Bundeswehr.

Nevertheless, Afghanistan is a country that is completely incompatible with our notion of democracy. It also suffers from the scourge of corruption, and yet Afghanistan today is still a better place than it once was.

No Place for Self-Righteousness

At the moment, the media are filled with reports of dead soldiers. But when the Germans withdraw, they will be reporting on acts of retaliation and on girls who are not permitted to go to school. From the Western perspective, Afghanistan's new order will likely be difficult to endure. Pacifism is not a position of innocence. Deciding not to go to war can be just as reprehensible as going to war. In other words, self-righteousness has no place in this argument.

In addition, an Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban would likely do its utmost to ensure that neighboring Pakistan came under the control of ultra-religious forces. This could result in an order that would pose a threat to the West, because Pakistan has enriched uranium and nuclear weapons.

There is no doubt that militant Islamism remains a challenge. If NATO withdraws now, without having established a relatively stable order, it will have lost the first round in a fundamental conflict, and it will have emboldened its enemies.

There are good reasons not to end this war yet.

The Legitimization: Public Sentiment and Responsibility

It is also part of the essence of a democracy that it may not act against the will of the majority in the long term. It is for this reason that the German government may be forced to withdraw the Bundeswehr, even if there are good reasons to remain in Afghanistan. That too would be an acceptable decision. The legitimization of political action by its citizens is the most important aspect of a democracy. A war, in particular, must be clearly legitimized, because it demands of some citizens the willingness to give their lives.

The war in Afghanistan supposedly lacks legitimacy because two thirds of German citizens are opposed to it. But that is the biggest fallacy in this debate. Germany has a representative democracy, in which politicians stand for election once every four years. In the interim, however, they have free rein within the confines of Germany's constitution and laws. There are good reasons that this is the case, so that public sentiment does not exert excessive influence on political action.

Public sentiment is easy to influence and difficult to gauge. Although opinion polls indicate that a majority of Germans are skeptical about this war, this skepticism has not motivated them to oppose it in significant numbers. This is ironic, because Germany is largely a country of pacifists. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest nuclear power, and tens of thousands demonstrated against America's first Iraq war. Now German soldiers are dying in Afghanistan, but there is no peace movement in a country of peace movements. What, then, is the real public sentiment in Germany?

Flawed Arguments

Even if we knew exactly what it was, public sentiment cannot be the benchmark for politicians. Merkel is often accused of basing her policies too heavily on opinion polls, that is, public sentiment, and this is a reasonable accusation. But she does not do so when it comes to the question of Afghanistan, in which her policies are in fact opposed to alleged public sentiment. But she is also criticized on this front, which suggests that the arguments of her critics are flawed.

Every reasonable person, including Merkel, is fundamentally skeptical toward the war. But she cannot limit her dismay to the fact that German soldiers are dying. She must also find it dismaying, and nevertheless necessary, to have had to accept these sacrifices. In this situation, a politician is confronted with a terrible choice. Protecting her citizens is one of her most important duties. But she must also take into account the global situation, German interests and the relationship with allies -- mainly the United States, in this case. Only then can she conclude that 43 dead Germans are the price the country must pay, or possibly even 100 or 200.

No one wants to have to make such choices, and yet they are necessary, at least as long as Immanuel Kant's perpetual peace is not the prevailing order. Even a pacifist makes such calculations, at least unwittingly. And why does the pacifist object so strenuously to 43 dead, but not to one or five? But only politicians are called upon to make the decisions and bear the ultimate responsibility. Part of representative democracy means leaving the momentous decisions up to the politicians. Only they have the professional detachment needed to make these decisions, which they must then explain to the population.

Comes Up Short

Unfortunately, however, too little was said about the mission in Afghanistan for too long. Politicians wanted to remove the war from public awareness. There were even lies and cover-ups surrounding Colonel Klein's fatal decision. It was a mistake that Afghanistan did not play a role in the 2009 election campaign. The parties that had decided to support the mission were unwilling to commit themselves to it in the campaign. The Christian Democratic Union, the Social Democratic Party and the Free Democratic Party remained silent on the war, because they were afraid that taking a clear position could cost them votes. Many elements within the media also felt that it was the right thing that Afghanistan did not figure in the election campaign. This too was a mistake, as a member of the media can say self-critically. This is an area where the legitimization of the war comes up short.

An argument supporting the silence during the campaign is that a debate could have been detrimental to German soldiers in Afghanistan. But this is a poor argument. The Bundeswehr is the army of a democracy, and contention, not unanimity, is a key element of democracy. Everything is contentious and everything is fair game for dispute. The subject of war cannot be excluded from this. This is something that soldiers, who are citizens in uniform, must endure.

And politicians must be resolute. After the most recent attacks on the Bundeswehr, Merkel clearly committed herself to this mission. It was a commitment that was long in the making, but it remains a commitment nonetheless. And she should not conceal her beliefs in the 2013 campaign. The SPD, for its part, must establish its own clear position on the war by then. This will allow German citizens to make the subject of Afghanistan an important part of their voting decision, and to clearly legitimize the war -- or not. The discussion must remain at the top of the agenda until then, and not just when German soldiers are killed.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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